How could you become more creative, healthier, resilient, think faster, and feel better about yourself? How could your team become more creative, trusting, and better learners? How could your organisation move faster and more effectively within its teams and across its silos? How can even the budget-constrained achieve these kind of (research-based) outcomes?
The answers are all around us. It’s not what you know, it’s not who you know, it’s how you connect with others.
“High-quality connections are often short-term interactions, the micro-bits of a relationship over time. They occur when both people feel a sense of positive regard from the other, a sense of mutuality, and feel vitality or energy in the connection,” says Professor Jane Dutton from the Center for Positive Organisations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “They strengthen both people who experience them– leaving them stronger, both physiologically and psychologically.”
Dutton identifies four pathways for building these high-quality connections:
1. Be here now
I was recently walking through the park when a young mother with a stroller approached in the opposite direction. “What, no phone?” she asked, laughing. A bit confused, I smiled at her and kept going. It slowly dawned on me that every single person in the park was glued to their mobile phone and was missing out on experiencing the golden sunshine, the glistening water, the luscious green trees.
Especially in this day and age, paying complete attention is the ultimate compliment. We feel heard, respected, and valued when someone gives us their full attention. “Increase attention to and presence with each other,” advises Dutton. Be present, even if only for a moment. Put down your phone. Open your door. Listen.
2. Build trust
Trust can sometimes be elusive in the workplace. Most of the time, I have been fortunate to have incredibly energising relationships with my colleagues and collaborators. Yet over my career, there have been a few work relationships that have just felt fragile and tentative, for no reason obvious to me. Those times when I have not been successful in building authentic and positive working relationships nag at me for longer than I care to admit.
It is easy for us to forget that what we see of the other person is just a tiny fraction of the whole. All of us bring “baggage” to our work, and our relationships, that is accumulated from our past experiences. These residual perceptions and beliefs can be hard to leave behind, in order to build high-quality connections. Yet, if our motivation to build high-quality connections are sincere, all we can do is try. It is a daily process. “Help others know you have their best interests at heart”, encourages Dutton. By being open, being reliable, and being competent, you can make a great start in earning trust, and feeling more comfortable in trusting others.
3. Offer support skillfully
What is helpful to one person may be acutely unhelpful to another. “Know and provide what other people need to be successful,” suggests Dutton. “Make others succeed. Catch them when they fall. Know what ways of helping others really work for them.”
This may sound like it is easier said than done! Implementing #1 (listening and being present) will help. Professor and bestselling author Adam Grant recommends a practice of “five minute favours”, in which we set aside a short block of time to do helpful deeds. An additional resource to help with this is the Task Enabling Exercise (TEE). The TEE helps identify and strengthen the relationships that are most important to you in being successful at work, and the relationships in which you are equally important to others.
4. Play more. Play often
Sometimes we can take ourselves too seriously that we may be fearful either to initiate or engage in playful behavior. We believe that people around the table may be too busy to join in, or that we may be negatively judged for suggesting such a silly idea as being playful in the workplace.
Getting past this fear of resistance of judgment in order to play more, benefits the overall team culture. Indeed, for humans and many other species, the instinct to play with others is hardwired into us from birth.
Dutton encourages us to try different, contextually appropriate, forms of playing in order to build connections in psychologically safe ways. For example, at the Neutral Zone, a youth-driven space for leadership development, teen leaders often begin meetings by asking a fun, thought-provoking question to everyone before the meeting gets underway. This enables participants to use more creative parts of their brains first before jumping into the work. At Menlo Innovations, on the other hand, much of their coding work is done in pairs. As such, when two people are reporting out to the broader team on projects, they hold the two horns on a Viking helmet. This physical artifact strengthens the bond between the two people, and keeps an element of silliness in the room.
So often, we look for what to do, or with which company to do it in order to thrive at work. It turns out, who we do it with may be an equally important question to ask. How do you build high-quality connections as you go about your day?